A few days ago, Mitt Romney chatted with a bunch of firefighters, who told him about their struggles in the Obama economy. As Romney recalled it: “I asked the firefighters I was meeting with, about 15 or them, how many had had to take another job to make ends meet, and almost every one of them had.”

Of course, firefighters are public sector workers. And Romney has said that public sector workers are getting paid too much, not that they’re getting paid too little. As Jonathan Chait puts it:

Romney’s position is that these fine public servants are luxuriating in excessive pay, a fact that, unlike swelling income inequality, constitutes a major source of unfairness in American life. (“We will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve,” he said last week.)

This is actually a policy flashpoint between the two parties. Public employment has cratered in recent years, with public sector jobs continuing to decline even as private sector jobs rebound, exerting a continued drag on the sluggish recovery. Obama’s position is that the federal government ought to provide aid to state governments to rehire some of the laid-off teachers, cops, and firefighters. Republicans oppose this. Romney seems to have forgotten that the firefighters he came face-to-face with are one category of Americans whose economic pain he’s supposed to be in favor of.

Steve Benen takes this further, adding that the episode and the attendant contradiction reveal the failure of Romney’s “transactional politics.” Romney is looking to take things away from public sector workers, students who rely on Pell Grants, those who rely on entitlements and government programs that might be cut, and the like:

His is an agenda of austerity, a sharp reduction in public investments, and hostility towards government activism in general. In a transactional sense, Romney has to hope most voters aren’t looking to make a traditional electoral trade, because he doesn’t intend to give them anything.

Of course, Romney would be giving the firefighters and all these other consistuencies something. He’d be giving them a private sector relatively free of the impediment of government. Romney’s argument is that the economy would be improving far more quickly than it is now if it weren’t for Obama’s policies and the growth in government they’ve entailed. (In the real world, state and local governments have seen dramatic cutbacks, but that’s another story.) Romney would give Americans a private sector free of the redistributive government meddling Obama favors — which, unshackled, will shower everyone with prosperity and opportunity.

Obama, of course, will have to persuade voters that this vision is morally bankrupt, that in practice, all it really translates into is a lower tax burden for the wealthy, and that history has shown that lowering that tax burden has not translated into broadly shared prosperity at all. The Romney camp, meanwhile, is betting that this election will be all about Obama, that economic dissatisfaction and pessimism about government’s ability to improve people’s lives will lead them to grab for the alternative — no matter what it is — and take a flyer on Romney’s general aura of competence.

It could all come down to whether voters ask themselves this question, and how they answer it: What is Romney actually offering here?